First encounters;Features amp; Arts

19th November 1999 at 00:00
Gemma Warren finds it's negative to be too positive.

What's the worst, the most terrible thing you can possibly do to your Year 11 class? You can try to make their lives easier. Try telling them how much you like them. I dare you. Don't ever, ever, try to be positive.

Take it from me, it's career kamikaze.

My form War 11 have officially asked me to point out that they are not War 10 anymore, and we all have to treat them with the respect that Year 11s deserve. They wander around school with that world-weary expression that comes from being the only year group in the history of the world to take GCSEs, scattering self-pity and Year 7s as they approach.

You see, Year 11 are counting down to the Year 2000 in the same way that we are, but their millennium starts in July when the exams are over. Until then, they're fitted with their own, specialised strain of the millennium bug. And, whatever happens, do not try to cure it. Self righteousness is a rite of passage.

So we're in PSE. "I don't want you to get too stressed about work this year," I announce. "Today, we're going to focus on the positive things about ourselves, think about our many achievements. We're going to be writing a list: what are your personal qualities, and what have you done that you're proud of?" Silence.

"What exactly do you mean by that, Miss?" "What do you mean 'what do I mean?' We're celebrating the fact that you're all so brilliant, that you've all got so much to give, and that you're all at an exciting dawning of a new stage in your educational careers, that you've go so much to live for..." "Miss? Is it all right if I go to the loo?" I should have realised that it's not trendy to be well adjusted. It's not hip to be happy, especially when you're 16. If you're positive, you're a pariah. GCSEs give you nine reasons to hate everyone, and if you attempt to take the pressure out of this period, it's like taking the caffeine out of coffee. It's just not the same. So they're sitting hunched over their worksheets, grimacing.

"I haven't got any good qualities, Miss." I quickly jump in. "That's crazy. You're funny, and bright, and a really talented guitarist. You're a brilliant friend." "If I write that down, can I carry on with my homework?" Of course, how stupid of me. If your teacher likes you it's almost as embarrassing as getting on well with your parents. I sit down with one bemused pair and try again.

"You've been best friends for years, girls. Tell each other about your qualities." "I hate her, Miss. She stole my boyfriend in Year 8. She told my mum I had my belly-button pierced. She's lost my copy of Cosmo." War 11 start World War III. The sunshine session is falling apart.

So you shouldn't give your Year 11s unnecessary support. They're fragile. They don't like outward displays of affection, when one of their main pleasures in life is to presume you hate them. I think I'm going to stick to more subtle modes of motivation this term. I'll be supportive, but silent. I'll agree with them on everything.

But I just want to add that almost 30 lists have been secretly, sheepishly, returned to my pigeon hole over the past week. This is why War 11 cheer me up every morning, why I get energy from their apathy - you've got to be a code-breaker, and scowling is the hormonal version of smiling. Teenagers don't do public affection.

To everyone's relief, I'll give you the positivity plan, but, underneath, me and my form understand each other. We're secret friends.

Gemma Warren teaches at The Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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